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Given Hollywood’s endless fascination with the 1960s, it’s absurd how few have films have been made about the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary Black power political movement that responded to racist police brutality with armed protection. Luckily, director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) was just the man for the job to begin correcting that oversight with a (hopefully) mainstream hit. Judas and the Black Messiah—which premiered virtually at Sundance Film Festival on Monday evening and will open in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12—pairs two of the best working actors around to tell the harrowing true story of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) who betrayed him.
We meet William O’Neal (Stanfield) as a petty criminal whose preferred method of carjacking is flashing a fake FBI badge at Chicago’s Black population and demanding their keys.
Agent Mitchell offers him a deal: Go to prison, or come work for the FBI to infiltrate and spy on the Black Panther Party. Mitchell has orders from infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) to obliterate the Party, who have been designated as terrorists, for good. O’Neal chooses the latter option.
Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) heads the Illinois chapter of the Party, and right away you understand why this guy is in charge. Shaka King and his co-writer Will Berson expertly weave in key quotes from the real Hampton, demonstrating just how relevant his preachings were, then and now, in attempting to unite the Black power movement with the working-class movement. (“We’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism,” for example.) Aided by a phenomenal performance from Kaluuya, you easily see how Hampton commanded a room, enchanted his future fiancé Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), and, at least in this movie, even won over the man who was doomed to betray him.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.Kaluuya transforms completely into Hampton, nailing every cadence and vocal tick; a completely different role from his character in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, proving his impressive range. Stanfield, meanwhile, infuses O’Neal with his signature raw emotion. The scene where O’Neal is watching Hampton speak, genuinely swept up by the poetry and clearly inspired—only to have his bubble burst by an appearance from Agent Mitchel—is the best in the film. It’s so moving, so passionate, that you find yourself rooting for O’Neal, despite the fact that he’s consorting with the enemy. (Sheen is appropriately chilling as Hoover, a figure depicted on screen many times before, while Plemons masterfully walks the line between threatening and morally righteous.) You’re rooting, of course, for O’Neal to do the right thing—not to betray Hampton—but you’re also rooting for him to get away with it. In the moments where O’Neal is nearly outed for being a spy, I held my breath—I didn’t want him to get caught.
King and Berson struck a delicate balance to achieve that, which is why I hope their script, and King’s direction, will also receive praise. (Black Panther‘s Ryan Coogler produced, while the “story by” credit goes to Kenny and Keith Lucas.) If you know how the story ends, you know it’s a tragedy, and the film is imbued with sadness through—the anticipatory grief of losing a political leader, a youth leader, a lover, a father, and a friend.
King concludes with a clip of the real O’Neal, and he doesn’t quite match up with the version we just watched Stanfield play on screen. The shocking list of “where is he now” facts leave you wishing King had delved a bit deeper into O’Neal’s clearly complex psyche. But perhaps that’s a tale for another time. King can’t possibly fill all of Hollywood’s gaps when it comes to Black history on screen with just one movie. As is, Judas and the Black Messiah is an extraordinary conglomerate of talent and storytelling, and it more than does justice to a long-overlooked chapter.
Watch Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max
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